The Democrats’ favorite denier
Why enviros are cheering Chairman Inhofe.
By Elana Schor and Alexander Burns
Jim Inhofe isn’t a scientist — and when it comes to climate change, he doesn’t give a damn.
The longtime Oklahoma senator is the Hill’s most flamboyant critic of climate research, denouncing the concept of man-made global warming as a “hoax” and a “conspiracy.” Now that he’s about to take charge of the committee that oversees environmental policy, Democrats aspire to make Inhofe the face of GOP know-nothingism, while at least one Republican consultant says his style of skepticism could create headaches for candidates up and down the ticket in 2016.
Already, the liberal opposition research group American Bridge plans to monitor Inhofe’s every utterance on climate change, and liberal strategists are planning how to use his chairmanship as political fodder to attack Republicans more broadly in the next election. One Senate Democratic aide called Inhofe’s promotion a “silver lining” to Democrats’ losing the chamber.
“Leave it to today’s GOP to put someone who doesn’t believe in basic science at the helm of the committee that oversees environmental protection,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin said in an email Monday, putting the party’s private smirking on the record. “It’s unfortunate that Republicans continue to put more stock in their rigid ideology than science and what’s best for the country.”
“What we’re looking forward to is giving Jim Inhofe room to run and then highlighting his extreme agenda as something the American people don’t support,” said one veteran strategist who works with environmentalists.
The turnabout threatens to put Republicans, who lately have deployed the artful dodge of “I’m not a scientist” when asked whether humans are altering the climate, in a tough position: Are you with Inhofe or are you with science?
“My own view,” Republican consultant and former George W. Bush adviser Mark McKinnon wrote in an email, “is that it would be helpful to the GOP brand that even if the candidates are not scientists, perhaps they could consult with some.”
A spokesman for Inhofe said the senator would have no comment Monday. But his allies warn that greens and Democrats hoping for him to play to the cameras on climate change underestimate the three-term Republican’s ability as a workhorse, as well as his flashes of bipartisanship. Unlike some hardcore tea-party lawmakers, for instance, he often expresses warm personal feelings toward some liberals, including former EPA chief Lisa Jackson and current Senate environment panel Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
“There’s no doubt that climate activists are going to try to make him into something he’s not, but he understands how to win,” one ex-longtime Inhofe staffer said in an interview.
The Jim Inhofe guide to climate denial
Still, Inhofe’s outspoken skepticism on climate science stands in contrast to the caution that other Republicans showed on the issue during the midterms. Wary of a rising tide of environmental sensitivity among younger voters, conservative leaders from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to House Speaker John Boehner have protested that they lack the academic credentials to pass judgment on the science, insisting that the real debate should be on the costs of President Barack Obama’s climate policies.
But Inhofe has never shied away from going much further.
The 79-year-old former insurance executive has cited the Bible as proof that climate science is a fraud and urged the Justice Department to investigate academic researchers working on the subject. In 2012, he wrote the book “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”
During his previous turn chairing the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, from 2003 to 2007, Inhofe gave greens chronic heartburn and colorful combat. He wrote in a 2003 paper that rising temperatures “may have a beneficial effect” and compared the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to “a Soviet-style trial.” He invited author Michael Crichton to testify in 2005 about a novel that imagined eco-terrorist groups causing disasters to further their crusade against climate change.
Inhofe didn’t let up after Democrats took the majority in 2007. He traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009 for a splashy “truth squad” during U.N. climate talks. He told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow — another of his “favorite liberals” — that the White House-blessed statistic of 97-percent agreement among scientists about human-caused climate change “doesn’t mean anything.”
After a record-breaking snowfall blanketed the D.C. area in 2010, Inhofe’s family built an igloo decorated with a sign saying “Al Gore’s New Home” — even though climate scientists point out that cold winter weather doesn’t disprove a long-term warming of the Earth’s ocean and atmosphere.
All this makes the thought of a Chairman Inhofe downright heartening to some green activists still reeling from the Election Day defeat they suffered after spending $85 million trying to elect their favored candidates.
American Bridge Vice President Eddie Vale called Inhofe a prime target for the tracking-and-research outfit’s scrutiny. Bridge plans to turn a microscope on powerful committee leaders, Inhofe prominent among them, casting them as agents of special interests including the fossil fuel industry and billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.
“The incoming Republican congressional majority’s races were bought and paid for by the Kochs and big corporations, who will now be looking to make even more money at the expense of working families,” Vale said. “While we will be watching all of the Republican caucus, we will be paying especially close attention to the committee chairs.”
To Republicans, Democratic threats to weaponize the climate debate may sound more than a little hollow after the 2014 elections. Over the last two years, Democrats in coal- and oil-producing states from West Virginia to Alaska have been on defense against Republican charges that they represent an aggressive environmentalist agenda — and they took the brunt of last week’s wipe-out.
Yet national GOP strategists also privately agree that the party must avoid a Flat-Earther image to compete in national elections. As damaging as the war-on-coal attacks may be against Democrats in oil country and Appalachia, the national electorate is not quite as enamored of fossil fuels — and is acutely wary of candidates who appear impervious to scientific evidence.
Strong majorities of Democratic and independent voters — but only 37 percent of Republicans — believe that “solid” evidence of global warming exists, according to the Pew Research Center. While many voters still balk at potentially costly measures to counteract climate change, political operatives say big chunks of the swing vote recoil from politicians who dispute “basic science.”
Democrats hope that means the familiar Inhofe bombast could backfire in 2016 for blue- and purple-state Republicans like New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who recently declined to join 41 other GOP senators in a call for Obama to yank his EPA climate rules. Republican presidential hopefuls who dodge climate change by noting their lack of scientific credentials, from Jeb Bush to Chris Christie, could also find themselves yoked to Inhofe.
But Inhofe won’t be boxed in so easily, his former staffer said, saying the senator knows that EPA’s regulatory agenda — on power-plant emissions, fracking, water quality and other issues — is “what people really care about” for the coming GOP majority. He said Inhofe, an outspoken fan of federal infrastructure spending, is also prepared to work with Boxer on a new transportation bill next year.
Another former Senate GOP staffer agreed, saying Inhofe would home in on the economic impact of Obama’s EPA rules and avoid giving Democrats any easy opening. “I don’t envision them having hearing after hearing, week after week, on climate science,” the ex-aide said of Inhofe’s committee.
“It all depends which Senator Inhofe shows up,” Kalee Kreider, a former Gore spokeswoman turned independent climate consultant, said by email. “If it’s the same old Senator Inhofe, known more for his grandstanding and posturing than policy-making, then I would suspect that the Senator will not only be seen as an ineffectual chairman but also a liability to his party. If, however, the new Senator Inhofe shows up, the one who wrote the Tulsa World editorial this Saturday which articulated a positive vision, then, I suspect that it could be a new situation that the environmental community hasn’t seen from him before.
“My wager?” she asked. “A leopard can’t change its spots.”
By Adam Sneed
1. “With all the hysteria, all the fear, all the phony science, could it be that manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? I believe it is.” (Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works)
2. “God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.” (Think Progress, Right Wing Watch)
3. “The claim that global warming is caused by manmade emissions is simply untrue and not based on sound science. CO2 does not actually cause catastrophic disasters. Actually, it would be beneficial to our environment and the economy.”(Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works)
4. “To my knowledge, nobody has uttered the term ‘global warming’ since 2009. It’s been completely refuted in most areas. … Those people who really believe that the world’s coming to an end because of global warming and that’s all due to manmade, anthropogenic gases, we call those people alarmists.” (POLITICO)
5. “Alarmists are attempting to enact an agenda of energy suppression that is inconsistent with American values of freedom, prosperity, and environmental progress.” (Senate Committee on the Enivronment and Public Works)